Can RFID Unwire Data Centers?

HP conducts trial with retailer that tracks expensive pieces of data center kit

October 18, 2006

4 Min Read
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Could Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) be the perfect solution for keeping track of servers and storage? HP foresees some potential, and has been testing the technology at Michigan retailer Meijer, although cost remains a big user concern. (See HP Brings RFID to Data Centers.)

Up until now, RFID has been synonymous with retailers and defense contractors tracking pallets, packages, and inventory. (See RFID Rocks Back-End Storage, Dutch Bookstore Rolls Out RFID, and Reva Taps Into RFID Data.) Retail giant Wal-Mart, for example, has already strong-armed its top suppliers into RFID compliance. (See Storage Networking's Heaviest Hitters, More Users Signal RFID Intentions, RFID Software Ramps Up, and Tagging the Future.)

This, however, may be about to change. Today, HP revealed that it has been testing the technology on data center kit at Grand Rapids-based Meijer. Tim Osbeck, the retailer's operations and technical support manager, told Byte & Switch that he used the HP solution to track 120 of its 600 servers between July and early October as they moved between different racks. So rather than send IT staff around on foot to record moves and changes, the GUI queries the wireless tags for instant, up-to-the-second inventory.

The additional benefit of the wireless app is greater security at a time of immense regulatory pressure. (See Regulators Rip Records Managers, Top Tips for Compliance , and Storage Goes to Law School.) "Knowing that one of our servers with critical information on it has been moved or opened, would help me sleep better at night," he says.

Although Osbeck focused on servers initially, he feels that RFID is a great fit for tape storage. "There could definitely be some benefits there," he says. "It's knowing what tapes are in the data center and knowing if a tape with sensitive data on it went outside the data center."Long-term, according to the exec, RFID will also help control operational expenditures. Valuable IT staff, says Osbeck, would no longer need to traipse 'round the data center making a manual record of hardware. "I am paying some highly technical, competent people, to do some manual labor."

HP took the RFID monitoring kit back at the end of the free 90-day trial. The vendor wouldn't discuss pricing, or even whether it will be rolled out commercially. "It's still really early," says Cyril Brignone, project manager for research and development at HP Labs. "We're still investigating if we want to market this technology or not."

Over in Grand Rapids, Osbeck told Byte and Switch that he is not aware of any other vendors making inroads into this space, although he admits that cost is his over-riding concern. "If [HP] were going to market this, the price point would be of great interest to us," he says, adding that he would want to see a clear ROI before he stumps up any cash.

HP is not the only vendor to latch onto the data center possibilities for RFID. Last year, for example, Sun unveiled the grandiosely titled RFID Industry Solution for Physical Asset Tracking. (See Sun Adds RFID Solution.) Built around Java software, Sun storage devices, and third-party applications such as Applied Logistics' asset management software, the solution has already been used within one of the vendor's own data centers. (See Sun Creates RFID Test Center and Sun, SAP Collaborate on RFID.)

But at this stage, it is still unclear whether Sun's initiative will morph into an extensive solution for enterprise data centers. Similarly, IBM's RFID efforts have been largely focused on the retail and manufacturing sectors. (See IBM Fuels Innovation and IBM, Alien Team Up.)At least one analyst, however, thinks that RFID makes perfect sense in the data center. "It's a good one-off application of RFID," says David O'Connell at Nucleus Research. "It's a good example of where RFID is applicable and the weaknesses are not so great."

Specifically, deploying RFID in the data center will be much more straightforward than a retail rollout. "Data centers are not as huge as distribution centers and warehouses," says O'Connell, explaining that this removes a lot of the complexity traditionally associated with the technology.

James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Savi Technology

  • Sun Microsystems Inc.

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